24 March 2014

Three Mini Reviews: Literary Fiction

Well, I had three lovely mini-reviews all written out to my satisfaction.  I had them saved and ready to post on Monday morning. And now they're all gone.  I am supremely unhappy with Blogger and Google. To say that I am feeling quite put out would be to engage in careless understatement.  But I will try to retrieve them from my memory, if not from my bloody computer, and re-create them for you.

The whole reason I was doing three mini-reviews is because of how little time I have left in March: I have to go to Boston on Sunday for the Boston Gift Show for work, I have to drive to Albany on Tuesday to talk about books on the radio with the good folks at WAMC, and then on Wednesday I leave for Nashville for four nights with my husband to visit Vanderbilt, Ann Patchett, Parnassus Books, and my husband's nephews, not necessarily in that order.

Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi is one heckuva novel.  I started reading it back in January during Tika's minithon and became enthralled. Oyeyemi takes the Snow White fairy tale as a jumping off point for exploring a small 1950s town in Massachusetts. Boy, our narrator, has just escaped a terrible living situation in New York City and has gone off to seek her fortune on the train. Her narrative voice reminded me quite a bit of Katey Kontent's from Rules of Civility. In other words, she is self-assured, a little less worldly than she'd like her readers to think, bright, a little grating, a wee bit unreliable, and perhaps just the tiniest bit on the make.

Boy marries a man and becomes stepmother to Snow, a beautiful child. But when Boy has a daughter of her own, Bird is born with dark skin and it becomes clear to Boy that her husband and step daughter are Passing for White. This revelation unleashes the inner wicked step-mother in Boy, and the rest is mostly history. Oyeyemi stands things on their heads, the entire time stunning the reader with peerless prose. What is identity? What is beauty? What does it mean to be the fairest of them all?

I was so impressed with this book that it became my store's March selection for its signed First Editions Club.  But don't just take our word for it: read this review from the cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review and see why other readers can see the rising international literary star that is Helen Oyeyemi.

I feel similar warmth towards Dinaw Mengestu's new novel, All Our Names, which I also first started reading at the same minithon as Boy, Snow Bird. Before I say anything about the novel, I first have to quote from The Millions: "A MacArthur genius, a 5 Under 35 awardee, and a 20 Under 40 recipient all walk into a bar and take a single seat because it's one person and his name is Dinaw Mengestu." Seriously, why aren't you reading him?  He is, without a doubt, the hottest ticket writing in the English language today.

Isaac (which may or may not be his real name), an immigrant from Ethiopia, by way of Uganda, and Helen, his social worker in a small unnamed college town in the American midwest of the early 1970s, are our two narrators.  They may or may not be in love; they are certainly a couple, but being in love implies a passion that neither one is really capable of showing, at least not there, at least not then. Isaac may or may not have been involved with the government overthrown in Uganda; Helen may or may not be deluding herself that life is satisfactory for her and that she and Isaac have a future together.  Very little is what it seems on the surface of this novel, and that's the brilliant subtlety of Mengestu's writing. He writes between the spoken and the unspoken. His characters live between present and the past. And their lives are haunted by the living and the dead.

I didn't pick up on this as I was reading the novel, but when Mengestu was at my store last week, he touched on the parallels between America and much of Africa during the early 1970s.  Both places had just undergone periods of major upheaval in the previous decade--the Civil Rights era of the US, the anti-colonial movement in much of Africa--and yet those years were also marked by hope and idealism. By the time the 1970s rolled around, the hope had given way to disillusionment in both places.

Mengestu's new novel is also a pick for my store's signed First Editions Club.  I couldn't have been prouder to welcome him to South Hadley.

I first requested a copy of Violet Kupersmith's short story collectionn, The Frangipani Hotel, when I heard that the author was a 2011 graduate of Mount Holyoke College. My interest stayed piqued, however, once I delved into the stories themselves. Kupersmith takes traditional ghost stories of Vietnam and re-creates them in a modern setting.The blend of supernatural lore and the country's history wouldn't be complete without the presence of that other, all-pervasive specter: the Vietnam war.

Most of the stories take place in Vietnam, either the countryside or in Ho Chi Minh city, and while the ghosts take many forms, they seem comfortable interacting with Vietnamese and visitors alike. The blend of creepiness and whimsy is balanced perfectly, and I love what publisher Cindy Spiegel writes in the note to the reader at the front of my advance reading copy: the spirits are "as ordinary as the neighbor next door, and yet they carry with them the weight of history in the Vietnamese immigrant experiences and are informed by a rich storytelling tradition."

I don't read much horror, and this isn't Horror with a Capital H anyway, but the more subtle, slowly-get-under-your-skin variety. If you've read the excellent story collection by Yoko Ogawa called Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales, you'll have an idea of what to expect, but whereas those stories weren't really rooted in the specific culture of Japan, Kupersmith's are richly evocative of the atmosphere of Vietnam.

NB: I read all three of these books in advance reading copy form, which were provided upon my request from the publishers: Viking, Knopf, and Spiegel & Grau, respectively. The first two books are available now and the last one will be published on April 1, 2014. No foolin'. 


  1. I HATE when Blogger decides to eat posts. It hasn't happened to me in awhile (touch wood) but it almost made me cry last time it evaporated a post of mine.

    All three of those books sound amaaaazing (and seriously Dinaw Mengestu STOP, you're making everyone else look bad!) but I love the sound of Boy, Snow, Bird. I am going to add that to my TBR list and try and get my hands on it asap because wow, your mini-review has me hooked!

    1. There may have been a tear or two on my end, too. But then a margarita helped me feel better and I re-wrote as much as possible.

      Seriously. Dinaw Mengestu *does* make the rest of the literary world look like slackers.And if he weren't so lovely we could hate him for it, but he is really lovely.

  2. I haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaate when blogger eats posts. And I hate blogger eat my entire blog at one point and I wanted to stab all of the things. Afterr a lot of freaking out I managed to get in touch with people and get it back.

    Wow, the Boy, Snow, Bird book sounds EXCELLENT. The others look good as well but yeah BSB I may need to get to soon. And also the Ogawa one you mention in the The Frangipani Hotel review

    1. I cannot imagine how frustrating it would be to think you've lost your entire blog. I was feeling pretty stabby after just one lost post.

      Yeah, I think you'd definitely like the Ogawa book.

  3. I loved "Boy, Bird, Snow" and am so glad you liked it too. I found it a magical read on so many levels and I think it is a book that I will enjoy reading again. I have now pre-ordered "All Our Names" for early June and am so looking forward to that one - first on my list of summer reads.

  4. The tumblr side of me LIKES how multicultural these are, but the Victorian lit, middle class white people lit side of me is rather terrified of all of these. So there is that.

  5. I have been waiting for Boy, Snow, Bird at the library for a million years or at least several weeks. I can't wait to get to it!


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